Minnesota rolls out the barrel for dozens of new breweries and brewpubs

  • Article by: JENNIFER BROOKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 29, 2013 - 10:16 PM

New suds-friendly state laws are encouraging dozens of new breweries.

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Tom Whisenand, co-founder of Indeed Brewing Co. of Minneapolis, poured a glass of Indeed pale ale.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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New beer-friendly state laws have sparked a brewery boom in Minnesota that has catapulted the state into one of the nation’s fastest-growing craft brew markets.

The suds are flowing. Lagers, ales, pilsners, stouts. Heady, hoppy, handcrafted beer, rolling out of one-man operations in basements, brewpubs, microbreweries and mega breweries around the state — many of which didn’t exist just a few years ago.

“Every couple of weeks I get a phone call or e-mail from a brewer or future brewer saying, ‘Hey, I have an idea for a brewery and keep an eye on us because we’ll be opening somewhere soon,” said Clint Roberts, president of the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild, which keeps tabs on the state’s craft breweries.

It started in 2011, when the Legislature passed the so-called Surly bill, which allowed local brewers like Brooklyn Center-based Surly Brewing to open taprooms where customers could come in, sit down and sample their product.

Between 2011 and 2012, the American Brewers Association charted a staggering 81 percent jump in the number of breweries in Minnesota — the second-fastest increase of any state in the nation.

“There are little breweries and brewpubs popping up everywhere,” said Jason Alvey, owner of the Four Firkins in St. Louis Park, a store dedicated exclusively to the sale of craft beer.

When Alvey first opened the Four Firkins, five years ago, plenty of people were skeptical about the idea of a beer store with no Bud or Miller or even Corona.

“People told me I was crazy, it would never work,” Alvey said. “But we were starting to see this explosion of enthusiasm for craft beer, so we took a risk and here we are today. We can hardly keep up.”

There are now 62 licensed malt beverage manufacturers in Minnesota. That includes six large breweries — Summit, Surly, August Schell, Cold Spring, Tallgrass and 21st Amendment — and 19 brewpubs, where bars brew small batches on site.

But the part of the beer market that’s really taking off is the microbreweries. Minnesota had nine in 2010. Today there are 37.

When Indeed Brewing Co. opened its doors in northeast Minneapolis last year, co-founder Thomas Whisenand watched the taproom fill with neighbors, beer nerds and area liquor store owners, curious to see whether the new brewery’s product was worth stocking. They liked what they tasted. In less than a year, Indeed mushroomed from a single employee to 20.

Like many microbrewers, Whisenand got his start home-brewing in his basement. In a corner of the production floor, past the towering tanks capable of brewing thousands of barrels of beer, sit the tiny tanks he used when beer was his hobby, not his livelihood. He still uses them, only now to taste-test new recipes.

“Beer is great, especially with a brewery like this. We get to do such inventive stuff,” said Whisenand, pouring a glass of the brewery’s signature Daytripper pale ale, a light, hoppy, happy brew. Other Whisenand creations include Stir Crazy Winter Ale, with chocolate and raisin notes, and Hot Box Imperial Smoked Porter, redolent of smoked jalapeño and Fresno peppers.

“Not that we have that much time to drink. We’re too busy working,” Whisenand said, poking his head into the walk-in cooler, stacked high with 700 cases of Daytripper that rolled off the brewery’s tiny canning line on Sunday.

The passage of the Surly bill helped shape Indeed. Instead of opening anywhere that real estate was cheap and storage space was ample, Indeed’s three co-founders realized they could create not just a brewery, but an appealing taproom destination. In the end, they settled in northeast Minneapolis’ arts district.

Best of times

Minnesota wasn’t always so beer friendly. It is the state that sent Andrew Volstead to the U.S. House of Representatives a century ago, where he helped make Prohibition the law of the land. It’s a state where it’s still illegal to sell liquor on Sundays and where grocery stores are barred from carrying hard liquor at all.

But beer-booming Minnesota is also a place where Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Honour held an online contest to help pick his official summer campaign beer (Grain Belt Nordeast won).

Another gubernatorial hopeful, former Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers, made an apology tour to Chippewa Falls this month, his penance for having described Wisconsin’s beloved Leinenkugel’s as “bath water” compared with “good Minnesota beer.” Apology accepted, Zellers launched his own gubernatorial campaign days later.

For Minnesota beer lovers, these are the best of times. There are new regional flavors, quirky new neighborhood watering holes, and Surly is planning a $20 million destination brewery and taproom in southeast Minneapolis.

There are so many beers being invented, you can find a brew that pairs well with almost anything. Just ask Pete Rifakes, who is about to open a new brewpub-meets-bowling-alley in south Minneapolis. He’s brewing up a new beer — Superstrike — for the occasion.

“I love to bowl and I think bowling and drinking beer goes hand in hand,” said Rifakes, who opened his first brewpub, Town Hall Brewery, in 1997, long before the state’s beer boom. His new venture, Town Hall Lanes, will be his third brewpub when it opens in mid-July.

Even with all this supply, Roberts estimates that 90 percent of Minnesotans still aren’t drinking local beer. The Craft Brewers hope to set that right at this year’s State Fair, where they’ll host an exhibit offering tastes of more than 30 Minnesota beers. Last year’s exhibit, which offered 21 types of beer, was so popular that fair visitors were coming at 9 a.m. to ask which beer paired best with their morning scrambled eggs (Roberts suggests darker beers with breakfast).

Some worry that Minnesota could get too much of a good thing and that the number of breweries eventually will exceed the number of people thirsting for craft beer.

People say “‘Oh, there’s so many breweries, there’s so many breweries,’ but all the breweries are different,” Whisenand said. “Some want to grow like us, and distribute to the whole metro and possibly the whole state, and some want to sell just in their neighborhood or their bar … The one thing we all have in common is that almost all these breweries are owned by dudes like me and [co-founders Nathan Berndt and Rachel Anderson]. They’re people. They’re people who live there, who aren’t Anheuser-Busch.”

Roberts argues that the state has not even begun to tap the public’s appetite for locally made beer. Wisconsin easily supports more than 80 breweries. Bend, Ore. — population 76,000 — has 20 breweries at last count, which is more than Minnesota used to have statewide.

“Quality is going to reign supreme,” Roberts said. “Being adventurous and inventive with beer is going to be important. Really, the big winner in all of this is going to be the consumer.”

Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049

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